In a semi-desert region of South Africa, a group of dedicated individuals are working towards the conservation of two of the world’s most majestic wild cats

Here, in the Klein Karoo, you would not call the vegetation lush by any stretch. Yet, there is plenty of it, many with medicinal and other uses. Driving through a valley between two hills in Sanbona Wildlife Reserve, situated off the R62 in Montagu, just three hours’ away from Cape Town, the difference between the north- and south-facing slopes is clear: The south is slightly more green as it is cooler.

The flowering 'haaibekkies' add a touch of colour to the semi-arid landscape. Photo: © Sanbona
The flowering ‘haaibekkies’ add a touch of colour to the semi-arid landscape. Photo: © Sanbona

The vegetation changes quickly from one area to the next. The sosatie bos (Crassula rupestris) is beautiful with its leaves perfectly positioned at 90 degrees but it is the haaibekkies (Gibbaeum pubescens) that I find fascinating. They only grow in stony patches of mineral quartz and, when they pollinate, form a little capsule or pouch of fruit that remains closed and holds the seeds until it rains. Then, the pouch opens up and disperses the seeds. The leaves are fused at the base and look like the head of a shark, hence their common name — but that is the furthest animal from my mind right now.

We are slowly approaching the south-western side of Sanbona, the most undisturbed by humans. This is the conservation area, untouched, and where animals can roam with little to no human interaction. There is more than 200 kilometres of road network on Sanbona but we have not even driven half of them yet.

We are tracking two young subadult lion of about four years old to where they are taking a siesta in some dense bushes. They will be moved to another reserve shortly as part of lion management but, for now, the two take to mischievous acts of stalking and killing giraffe and other animals for food. 

Watching them go in for a kill, however, is not why we are here. Lion poaching is becoming more popular and lion management and conservation, especially in the Karoo, are a top priority. 

Lion genetics have also become weak and Sanbona’s wildlife team, under the leadership of General Manager Paul Vorster, strives to help sustain a healthy lion population on the reserve. As part of greater lion conservation, Sanbona is a member of the Lion Management Forum (LiMF), which has most reserves and protected areas — whether state-owned or private entities — as members. It is through management platforms like these that lion can be moved between reserves to ensure meta-population management through genetic flow between parks and reserves. 

One of the subadults raises its head to take a peek at us but eventually is lost to sight behind the thicket. Paul explains that the subadult lion will be moved to avoid inbreeding and territorial fighting between them and the dominant male lion. ‘The two young males are very successful hunters and would naturally split from their pride as their father would kick them out of his territory and they would have the urge to establish a pride of their own,’ he says. ‘As there is only one pride at Sanbona, this would mean the two young males would challenge their father for his territory and lionesses. These challenges would eventually result in conflict that could lead to death and inbreeding.’ Hence the need to translocate the young males to another suitable reserve where they are able to contribute to that area’s lion population through genetics and pride establishment. 

White and tawny lion coexist in one pride at Sanbona. Photo: © Sanbona
White and tawny lion coexist in one pride at Sanbona. Photo: © Sanbona

The core lion population at Sanbona will be three once the subadults are relocated, however, the reserve is able to accommodate up to six. When new lions are introduced to the reserve, they are first placed in a small boma area before they are let into the wild in order for them to acclimatise to their new surroundings and bond with members of their new pride. But the management of these majestic animals does not stop there. Dedicated team members track and monitor their movements and activity with other lion and animals. Human intervention is only done when the animal is harmed or endangered through human actions, for example, if a lion is caught in a fence. All other interactions, such as fights with other lion or a broken leg through natural processes, are left as is. Management of the lion are done in their natural environment and all logs are kept for research purposes.

‘In the past, we have had final-year Conservation Management students from institutions such as Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University (NMMU), University of Cape Town (UCT), Stellenbosch University and Rhodes University, spend their practical year working at the reserve,’ says Paul. ‘During this year, they gain a variety of experience in all aspects of conservation management as part of their university-related experiential training.’ In addition, Sanbona also collaborates on conservation efforts with institutions and organisations such as the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT), CapeNature, Wilderness Foundation Africa, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Southern African Wildlife Management Association (SAWMA).

It is not only white lion that Sanbona focuses on, though. In 2003, two small prides of tawny lion were reintroduced into the area for the first time in more than 300 years. The tawny lion roamed the majority of Sanbona, hunting, forming prides and fighting. During this time, two white lion were gifted to Sanbona and integrated with the tawny lion on the reserve. Later, many lion were relocated to allow this integrated pride to establish themselves at Sanbona and, ever since, both white and tawny lion have been born here.

In addition to lion conservation, the reserve has a detailed Biodiversity Management Plan for all species inhabiting the area, including fauna and flora. This plan includes strict limitations on the number of animals that are allowed into the reserve as it is situated in a semi-arid environment, which makes it unpredictable in terms of rainfall. Vegetation growth is often sparse and slow to recover after pressures such as droughts and herbivory, which means there is less food for herbivores than in similar-sized areas in other parts of South Africa. As antelope species are the preferred prey of lion and cheetah, predator numbers are determined by the number of herbivores in the area.

‘When looking at the predator-prey ratio on the reserve, it is important to keep in mind the variety of small and large predators that occur at Sanbona. Brown hyena, caracal, jackal, cheetah and leopard will compete for smaller antelope species such as steenbok, duikers, klipspringers and springbok while cheetah, leopard and lion will compete for medium- to large-sized antelope like red hartebeest, kudu, oryx and young eland. Giraffe, adult eland and zebra fall prey to lion,’ explains Paul. It is for this reason that lion and cheetah populations are monitored. If allowed to grow without limitation, the lion and cheetah populations would impact the number of herbivores, causing population crashes for prey and predator. 

As with the lion at Sanbona, the number of cheetah at the reserve is also fairly small. Currently, the core cheetah population consists of two females and one male, however, the reserve can accommodate up to four adults. Solitary creatures, cheetah are often only found in pairs when two brothers form a coalition. Even females only tend to raise their cubs for between 18 months and two years of age, before they are expected to survive on their own.

General Manager Paul Vorster with a male cheetah who was immobilised for fertility/sperm level testing, which provided an opportunity to collar him for spatial and feeding ecology research.  Photo: © Roger de la Harpe
General Manager Paul Vorster with a male cheetah who was immobilised for fertility/sperm level testing, which provided an opportunity to collar him for spatial and feeding ecology research. Photo: © Roger de la Harpe

Cheetah are known to man as the fastest animal on land with recorded speeds of between 109.4 to 120.7 kilometres per hour, depending on the terrain on which they are running. Here at Sanbona, however, the cheetah utilise a variety of terrain, moving over open land, mountains and through valleys, often travelling larger distances than what they might have in the Savannah areas, as they look for prey that is more dispersed. Possibly due to the varying terrain, they are also larger than in other areas. Yet, while tracking an elusive cheetah with Casper Bester, one of the guides who has worked at the reserve for four years now, it seems the cheetah here move as fast as any on less harsh terrain. 

‘Cheetah at Sanbona can reach a top speed of around 90 kilometres an hour,’ says Casper. ‘Because of the harshness of the terrain at Sanbona, the cheetah utilise the topography and have adapted to it by stalking their prey and even hunting uphill.’

‘On the rocky mountain slopes, they would be running slower compared to, for example, a dry pan,’ adds Paul. ‘They adjust their speed to ensure they do not waste unnecessary energy  or risk injury whilst hunting.’

As of 2016, cheetah have officially been declared an endangered species, with as few as 7 100 of the cats thought to be remaining in the wild. As such, Sanbona’s Biodiversity Management Plan is crucial to the conservation of both cheetah and lion.

As part of the Management Plan, Casper says, Sanbona conducts an annual game census of the entire reserve each September, which provides an indication of the number of animals and their locations. This data is analysed to provide insight into certain trends within the animal populations and vegetation. 

‘This allows us to see how impacts, such as drought and predation on herbivores, has an effect every year,’ says Paul. ‘The census is conducted by flying transects in .a helicopter and counting and recording each animal seen as well as logging its GPS location.’ The data is then logged on to a computer where Sanbona’s Conservation and Wildlife Management team can extract information for research and management purposes. 

Although Sanbona operates four lodges for commercial purposes, its main premise is conservation and its staff contingent includes an ecologist, conservation managers, a security manager, field staff and an anti-poaching team. In addition to the team’s conservation and wildlife management tasks, they also conduct research on the reserve and facilitate other researchers from various institutions. Postgraduate studies at Sanbona — on vegetation impacts, RIverrine rabbits, brown hyena, large predators, giraffe and elephants — have taken place through partnerships with institutions such as UCT, Stellenbosch University, Rhodes University and NMMU.

On foot, we have finally managed to catch up with the cheetah, who has found respite from the harsh sun beneath the branches of a tree perched on a mountain slope. Mere metres away, its elegance and poise belie its predatory behaviour. ‘What a majestic creature,’ a fellow traveller muses and we all nod in agreement. 

As we slowly retreat back the way we’ve come, I say a silent thank you to the guides, conservationists and other team members at Sanbona who have dedicated their lives to ensuring these and other amazing creatures of the wild will still be around for generations to come.

A version of this article first appeared in Edition 4-2018 of Intrepid Explorer.